Phillip Hughes: The Next Michael Clarke

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Australians love nothing more than a good sporting story, and if Phillip Hughes’ career continues in the footsteps of the greats he appears likely to emulate, his story will be one of the best.

Announcing his presence with two centuries on debut in South Africa back in 2009, Hughes’ introduction to international cricket seemed destined for legend. His personality is in keeping with the Australian cricketing identity; cheeky yet likable, a larger than life character in an ironically diminutive, 167cm frame. He possesses leadership qualities within a side that is devoid of experience and whose captain and vice-captain are incredible injury-prone. Hughes is an immense talent in an era of Australian cricket in which promising batsmen are a rarity and as such, should be treated with great respect by Cricket Australia from 2013 onwards. Most importantly though, is that Hughes has been around the traps, enjoying the ups and enduring the downs inherent to professional sport. Having been dropped three times in his short Test career, Hughes has shared the adversity experienced by modern Australian greats Steve Waugh, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer. Just like these three, he didn’t see his snubbing as a negative, instead viewing it as an opportunity to improve and a right of passage into the elite of the nation’s most esteemed sporting institution – the Baggy Green.

Whilst there is no denying the obvious parallels between the three aforementioned players and Phillip Hughes himself, the greatest correlation of all exists between the promising 24-year-old and his national captain.

Michael Clarke broke into the national Test side in 2004 as a prodigious talent; a middle order batsman tipped to succeed an ageing yet great Australian middle-order. Initial success in India and then in Australia these initial expectations were met, however also meant that he quickly became touted highly enough for obvious deficiencies to be overlooked. A loose technique outside off-stump was too often his undoing; he valued flamboyance over efficiency and despite lightening footwork, found himself too front-on when playing square of the wicket. Somewhat sub-continental in his approach, Clarke was susceptible to intolerable fluctuations in form. His average dropped from 67.62 after 5 Tests to just 36.96 when he was dropped at the end of 2005. In that time, he managed to post consecutive scores of 50 or over just once (20 Tests). In his 69 Tests since his reselection in 2006, he has achieved the feat 13 times. A testament to application and maturity more so than a criticism of his initial talent, Clarke’s current reputation and stance within cricket was made possible through his initial struggles. When reselected in 2006, Michael Clarke was 24. When reselected this past summer, Phillip Hughes had just turned 24.

Five years and two months after Michael Clarke took Test cricket by storm, another New South Welshman forced his way into the Australian line-up through sheer production at the First-Class level. Similarly loose through the offside, Phillip Hughes played the cut shot and cover drive with a balance of sheer brutality and elegance that very few players could comprehend, never mind execute. At times though, these strengths were endeavoured with reckless abandon. As a result, Hughes’ found himself dismissed by being caught (by a player other than the wicket-keeper) 62% of the time. In comparison, Tendulkar was dismissed in that manner just 45% of the time, Ponting just 46% and even Adam Gilchrist found himself back in the sheds after being caught in just 55% of his innings.

Hughes’ stance was also too closed-off, as if he was resigned to playing exclusively on the offside. As such his balance was skewed, his leg-side play became impaired and when he tried to compensate for this flaw, the conviction that defined his rise to prominence turned to uncertainty. Optimised in a disastrous series against New Zealand in which he was caught at 2nd slip in all 4 innings, Cricket Australia rightly dropped the opener.

So what is it that elevates Hughes from Test outcast to a player we’re tipping to emulate the world’s greatest Test batsman? Firstly, it is a rabid desire to play cricket at the highest level. Epitomised by Steve and Mark Waugh, mental toughness trumps natural talent in almost every situation. Hughes is arguably more talented than Steve Waugh, however has only adopted the resilience iconic to Australia’s most successful Test captain in recent months. Whilst only playing 3 Test matches this past summer, Hughes wasn’t caught in the outfield once. His strike-rate across 5 innings fluctuated between 50 and 70, a stark contrast to the 30 to 115 he demonstrated in a 5 Test span just 24 months ago. Even within the ODI format, a player who constantly craved bat on ball is now prepared to play a more responsible role.

Michael Clarke endured a similar transformation. Entering the Australian team as a situational role player within one of the strongest Test XIs ever seen, a young Clarke had little responsibility. His aggression is hard to show through statistics but tellingly, almost 10% of his runs in 2004 came from 6s (this figure was just 2% in his prolific 2012). Whilst that is more than acceptable if you can pull it off, at Test level, such aggression is only sustainable if your wicket doesn’t have the potential to lose your side a match. For example, Adam Gilchrist’s attacking style was facilitated by the fact that he generally came to the crease with his side’s score in excess of 300.

During Australia’s unsuccessful Ashes tour of England in 2005, this temperament issue came to the fore. Clarke was no longer a role player in an invincible side. His team was frequently in trouble and averaging just 37.22, the youngster was unable to add a new dimension of composure and maturity to his repertoire. Now, fast forward 6 years and 15 Test centuries to January 3, 2012. Michael Clarke scores 1595 runs in the following 12 months, including 3 double centuries and 1 triple century in which he came to the crease at 3/55, 3/40, 3/84 and 3/37. This situational maturity came from a realisation that Clarke was the anchor of his side, a captain who had the potential to win and lose matches, an influence he believed he lacked prior to 2006.

Whilst Hughes’ sample size isn’t quite as substantial, his short ODI career evidently shows that he is relishing a newfound responsibility within a young and inexperienced side. His unbeaten century in Hobart against Sri Lanka to tie the recent series at 2-2 was one of the more impressive innings we will witness this calendar year. In the Test arena, his composed 86 in his first innings back in the Australian setup showed his determination to prove himself and cement a permanent Test role. Fast-approaching series’ against India and England will pose the greatest tests of his short career. In Australia, Hughes’ technical deficiencies against the moving ball haven’t been tested to their full extent. Spin in India and swing in England will be to Hughes what short-pitch bowling was to Steve Waugh – a challenge. The new number 3 batsman has the potential and skill to mitigate anything Anderson, Ashwin, Swann and Sharma can hurl at him, but unless Phillip Hughes believes this and acknowledges that he has the potential to become a legendary player, his true talent may never be realised.

There is no doubt that as a batsman, it is easier to get a game for Australia now than at any other time in the past 20 years. That reality has seen opportunities granted to many players who will be lucky to feature in Channel 9’s KFC Trivia in 15 years, let alone be remembered as valuable contributors to the Baggy Green. Phillip Hughes isn’t such a player however. Those who threaten to emulate Steve Waugh’s mental determination and Michael Clarke’s raw talent deserve to be noticed, remembered, and to succeed. It would be incredibly disappointing to Phillip Hughes, Cricket Australia and Australian sport fans if the potential that has crystallised this past summer goes unfulfilled.

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On twitter @rombarbera. Australian sports by day, international sports by night. Co-founder of Blindside Sport. Fantasy sport addict.

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